What Are Peptides? Here's What to Know About This Anti-Aging Skincare Ingredient

Want firmer skin and reduced wrinkles? Work these amino acids into your routine. 

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What are peptides?

Peptides are short chains of amino acids that occur naturally in the skin and are the building blocks of proteins. In cosmetic products (or skin-care products), peptides can mimic the protein sequences in collagen and elastin and stimulate production, says Geeta Yadav, MD, a dermatologist and founder of Skin Science Dermatology in Toronto. These are the proteins that keep skin looking youthful. "Many peptides are small enough to penetrate the skin," says Blair Murphy- Rose, MD, a dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. As a result, they're able to have a more profound impact than skin-care formulas containing larger molecules that simply sit on the skin's surface.

Photograph by Peter Ardito

What do peptides do?

"In skin care, peptides are best known for stimulating skin repair and inhibiting the signs of aging," explains Dr. Yadav. And they don't have the irritating effects that more potent anti-aging ingredients, like retinoids, can have. Peptides generally work by telling other cells to perform tasks like increasing the production of collagen or elastin. This is essential because the body's own production of collagen and elastin starts to decline after the age of 20. Peptides also support a healthy skin barrier and promote the healing of wounds; some even have a mild Botox-like effect that will relax muscles and treat fine lines, adds Dr. Murphy-Rose.

How do you use peptides?

Lots of anti-aging formulas are packed with peptides. The best thing about them is that they play well with active ingredients, say Gloria Lu and Victoria Fu, skin-care chemists and cofounders of Chemist Confessions Inc. You'll see them paired with vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and niacin. It's most important to use products that have long-lasting contact on the skin—they give the peptides enough time to go to work, says Dr. Murphy-Rose. So opt for serums and moisturizers as opposed to cleansers.

Neutrogena Rapid Firming Peptide Multi Action Eye Cream

Courtesy of Merchants

A wake-up call for tired eyes, this lightweight formula brightens, firms, and depuffs.

Aurelia The Probiotic Concentrate

Courtesy of Merchants

The brand's probiotic peptide complex—derived from milk extract—helps to kick-start collagen and hyaluronic acid production for smoother, more hydrated skin.

Thrive Causemetics Timeless Ambition Power 7-Peptide Firming Moisturizer

Courtesy of Merchants

This easily absorbed gel cream instantly softens skin, plus it offers long-term plumping thanks to peptides and ceramides.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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